South African Passport

With less than 4 months to go before Elaine and I are eligible for British citizenship, the time has come to answer the one question that’s been stuck in the back of our minds for the last few months – do we want to retain our South African citizenship when we become British? Most South Africans don’t pay a lot of attention to this question as the default position seems to be that you must hold on to it at all cost because it’s a symbol of identity and national pride, an argument I disagree with, and when I shared my opposing view on this topic, I quickly found myself to be wildly unpopular in some circles. No, I don’t hate South Africa, I simply took a clinical approach to weigh up my options.

So before you freak out on me too, let me start by saying this:

Even though I take a different view to most South Africans on the matter of dual nationality, the South African High Commission in London today approved our application to be exempted from section 6 of the South African Citizenship Act 88 of 1995, and we will therefore remain South Africans when acquiring British citizenship later this year.

So with that in mind, let’s get into it.

How it used to work

Back in the day, South Africans came to the UK and automatically became dual nationals (a citizen of both countries) when acquiring British citizenship. During the 1990s, some of my family members rocked up in the UK, played by the immigration rules and was given British citizenship. Overnight, they had two passports – one from South Africa and another from the UK – and could travel freely on any passport. In all honestly, if this was still the case today, I would never have considered giving up my South African citizenship because, in this scenario, why would you?

Then the rules changed, twice.

The first major change was on 6 October 1995, when the South African Citizenship Act (read it here) was published in the Government Gazette to provide for the acquisition, loss and resumption of South African citizenship. In layman’s terms, Section 6 of this act says that a South African citizen, who’s not a minor, will lose their South African citizenship when they acquire foreign citizenship unless they’ve applied to be exempted from this section in the Act before taking up foreign citizenship. Bizarre idea right – there is an Act of Parliament which citizens can choose to opt-out of should they wish to do so. Man, imagine you could opt-out of other laws too. Can open, worms everywhere.

The second change came almost a decade later, on 15 September 2004, when the South African Citizenship Amendment Act (read it here) was published which states that a South African with dual nationality must enter and depart the Republic with their South African passport as failure to do so is a criminal offence that could result in a fine and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months. Yikes!

What this means for us that live abroad

Asking to be exempted from the Citizenship Act, and entering/leaving South Africa on your green passport seems very reasonable, but here’s what it really means for us:

  • To ask for an exemption from section 6 of the Act costs an extra R11,571/£609 for the two of us (*breakdown of fees below). Keep in mind, this is on top of the R50,540/£2660 we would need to pay in October if we wish to apply for British Citizenship, and, also on top of the R90,782/£4778 we already paid in October last year to apply for permanent residency in the UK (Indefinite Leave to Remain).
  • Having to enter and depart the Republic on a South African passport each time you visit means that, as a dual national, you need to ensure you keep your South African passport valid at all times as travelling on a British passport (in this scenario) would be illegal. If renewing your passport was a quick and easy process, this rule would not have bothered me, but the last time we dealt with the High Commission, the process of renewal took 8 months to complete and the treatment we received was so bad that I ended up in the Commissioner’s office to give her an earful (read more about that here).  The one lesson I learnt that day was to avoid the High Commission at all cost. Period.

The flip side of the coin – losing your citizenship

Over the last few months, I have spoken to multiple solicitors and immigration experts both here in the UK and in South Africa to understand the impact and consequences of losing my South African citizenship. To me, this was where the plot thickened:

  • If you lose your citizenship, you also lose your right to vote. Now I don’t know about you, but given the political climate in South Africa, this was not a good enough reason for me to retain it.
  • If you lose it, you can get it back. Losing it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever but to get your citizenship reinstated, you need to move back to South Africa for at least 12 months before you can apply. Once approved, you’ll be issued a new ID number, your status will change from ‘resident’ to ‘citizen’ and you’ll get back your right to vote (and the crowd goes wild).
  • Not many people seem to know this, but South African born nationals, who have had their citizenship revoked in this way, never lose their right to permanent residency in South Africa. Read that again, and tell me that doesn’t fundamentally change the argument. This means that I can give up my South African citizenship, but should we want to move back to South Africa at any point in time, my residency certificate allows me to live and work in South Africa, visa-free, just like I did before. In this instance, losing your citizenship doesn’t close to the door to sunny South Africa.
  • Tax implications. Well, this is only applicable if you actually still have assets in South Africa, but we’ve closed off our financial emmigration process more than 2 years ago, so at the time of writing, there was no impact for us to worry about.

Motive & emotion

The biggest reason, I think, why I ended up on the opposite side of the table when it comes to dual nationality is because of the motive and emotion that sits behind this decision. If you take emotion out of the decision-making process, I don’t really see the benefit of retaining it. I believe that being South African is in my blood and DNA and that I don’t need a passport to tell me that I like to braai, drink Castle or support the Springboks, but most South Africans hold on to their green books because the decision is simply an emotional one. Clearly, I lack emotion, so let’s look at motive. Most South Africans go dual because, according to them, they want “a backup passport”. This means they have plans to move back to South Africa in the near future whilst leaving the door open to return to the UK “should things go really bad back home”, but when you ask them what “bad” means, most of them have no answer. For us, however, the motive is very different because going dual would mean that our South African passports would become the “backup passport” that we’d use every now and again. Now that you know how we see it, let me share with you why we ended up filing for exemption certificates anyway.

. . . an African choir sings the national anthem, slow clap, Boeing flying over Ellis Park . . .

Our reasons for going dual, for now

  • Firstly, thanks to Covid, the High Commission started forcing applicants to apply via post. So they made it much easier for us to apply as we didn’t have to take the morning off to go queue outside their offices. Instead, all we had to do was download and complete the forms, get a postal order to pay the fees, and post it to the High Commission. A few weeks later, we had our retention certificates. Easy right?
  • Secondly, it’s probably easier to hold on to something you already have than trying to get it back later. After going through the entire process of renewing our passports just months ago, our new South African passports still have more than 8 years left on them. After a long discussion and loads of wine, Elaine and I finally decided to give the High Commission the benefit of the doubt, leaving room for the possibility that the experience we had during our last visit to Whitehall was purely one of bad luck and not business as usual. We deemed it fair to give them another shot in the future to prove us wrong when it comes to service delivery and we will put them to the test with our next renewal. A lot can change in 8 years and we really hope it changes for the better, but should we have a similar experience with them in the future, renunciation will be the way to go. This way, no one can argue that we didn’t give it a fair shot or that we decided to give it up for no good reason.
  • And lastly, over the last few months, Elaine and I did extensive scenario playing where we came up with as many possible scenarios of what we think the future could hold (the good and bad). As a result of each scenario, we still came to the conclusion that dual citizenship is not a must, but should we have missed something obvious, our 8-year extension plan will give us more than enough time to validate our thinking.

If you live abroad and face this decision, let us know what you think in the comments section below or via private message, we’d love to hear from you.

Take care,

*The fee was calculated as follows (exchange rate: £1 = R19):

  • Letter of UK non-acquisition = R4,750/£250 per person (R9,500/£500 per couple)
  • The application fee at the SA High Commission = R475/£25 per person (R950/£50 per couple)
  • 4 x Certified copies of SA Passports at the Post Office = R266/£14 per person (R532/£28 per couple)
  • 2 x self-addressed special delivery envelopes (for the return) and 2 x special delivery to the High Commission = R295/£16 per person (R589/£31 per couple)



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